from Fire to Fire by Mark Doty
Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,
and goodbye to his parents,
paid off his credit card.
She says Why don’t you just
run it up to the limit?
but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets
he’s already found a home for
–he can’t be around dogs or cats
too much risk. He says,
I can’t have anything.
She says, a bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn’t want to start
with anything and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,
how their tails would fan
to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe
they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can’t love
anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,
though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,
a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,
her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:
Yes to the bowl of goldfish,
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,
a Zen master who’d perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,
a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn
in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie’s friend–
is he going out
into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence
of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,
copper leaf, hurried darting,
doubloons, icon-colored fins
troubling the water?
“Brilliance” is an unlikely word to associate with the beginning flickerings of Lent. It sounds like a word more appropriate for Epiphany or Easter. I cherish Mark Doty’s poem at this point in our liturgical wanderings for the way it puts into relief what happens in the Temptation story from Luke that Stuart unfolded and offered this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent.
The Temptation story in Luke sees Jesus through forty days in the wilderness, and only then does the story really begin. For forty days Jesus has been in the wilderness alone, or perhaps, as Stuart suggested, in the company of the Spirit. Forty days by yourself and it can become easy to think and imagine that you are the center of the universe, that the Wasteland about is all about you, that, as in the Arthurian stories of the Holy Grail what matters most of all is what you have to ask, what you have to say.
And it is precisely at that point that Satan shows up, challenging Jesus to say unequivocally and clearly how he truly is what the Father has declared him to be at his baptism. Satan is asking Jesus to be true to the Father’s naming him as beloved son. The real challenge of Satan to Jesus is whether Jesus REALLY believes the naming as son by the Father at his baptism.
In this beginning of the days of Lent, who do you really believe God names you in your baptism? Are you named and called to turn the rocky minerals of gold and silver into bread? Are you named and called to let go of the pinnacle of Grace church and fly away into the arms of angels, or into the flames of the pyrotheology of Peter Rollins? Are you named and called to an incarnational commitment to life in the world and compromise with things as they are to save as many as can be saved? What questions arise in you this Lent? What are you baptized and named and called to become in God’s name? And who is asking?
What is the temptation of such questions at the beginning of things, whether the ministry of Jesus, the baptism of an infant, or the beginning of your Lent?
Jesus responds to the questions of Satan not by denying his baptism or the words of his Father, but by remembering further, not just other, other words of his Father. A good thing to remember from this Temptation gospel is that Satan loves simplicity, a single and logical and obvious answer, a final solution, while God is alive only in Trinity and complexity, and so are we in the complexities of God and one another and the world.
That very word “one” is much the problem, after all — as though any of us could be a single and coherent “one”, saved or damned, demon or god, or just you yourself alone. If God is only God in Trinity, in the one-anothering of Spirit and Son and Father, round and ever about, how can we begin to imagine ourselves as “in the image of God” and yet simply one, simply me? For there is no “one”, as Jesus knew and confessed out of his Father’s love to the temptations of Satan to be merely himself.
“Brilliance” is a poem that begins at the end rather than the beginning of a life. While the Temptation story sets the terms for all of the life of Jesus, temptations that will arise over and over to the end of his life, “Brilliance” begins at the end of a life.
The temptation of the man dying is to succeed in taking care of everything about his life, his parents, his credit card, his pets, every love and every commitment fully fulfilled and accomplished. As he is dying so all that he has shared his life with is ended as well. And so he enters into a time of shorn and competent and completed dying, all is done.
But Maggie, the caretaker in the poem, keeps knitting and making more and listening and wondering for this mean-time not to be mean, skinflint, meager as Scrooge, but rather flamboyant, as an expended credit card, a bowl of gold fish. The quiet dazzle of goldfish more gladly enters into their conversation than anything about credit cards or money.
The bottom line, though, was: I can’t love anything I can’t finish. Even love of parents or pets, children or goldfish, anything dear, none can truly be beloved except in my control to the end of me. All relationships and love is defined by and ends in me. We all know that sort of love within ourselves. We all know that sort of love from others. We all have heard that God loves us that way. The apocalyptic strain in Christianity can only imagine God’s love of all creation and of you and of me if God can “finish” it.
At the end, though, the complicated brilliance of life wondering and rash tumbles out in the man’s dying: Yes to the bowl of goldfish. Goldfish, “icon-colored fins / troubling the water.” Doty knows his Gospel stories and sings them throughout this poem in the troubled waters stirred by the angel, in the icons of illumination backwards into God’s glory out of our broken lives.
Doty’s tale of the Zen master going through his own Lent with total success to the end of his life, detached from all desire for bread, all imagine of angels bearing him up, all temptations of power, then tumbles open in the Zen master’s last recollection of feeding deer, and what would…. And then the Zen master reborn in “stunned flesh of a fawn”. And so Doty imagines the dying man tumbled beyond all his determination to “finish” his life in complete control, then flashing out in goldfish glory, alive in iridescence, glamorous in a new moment of life.
Jesus in the Temptation stories says yes to the words of his Father, a complicated mix of his Father beyond and before Jesus’ baptism. As we enter into this Lent, the Temptation is ever to enter into a single saying, a solitary word, a solo self, that Satanic definition of who we are. In God and creation all is Trinity and many about, sharing our lives in ways we will never know.
In the poem Doty wonders if the man dying rises up in the gladeolus of goldfish, as the Zen master in the trembling fawn. As we enter into Lent stripping ourselves, it may be, of the dubious and murky and confused in our lives, then what is left? What is the recollection, the imagine, the scoured free wonder at the heart of our lives?
At the end of Lent, what will you resurrect to be? At the end of Lent what did Jesus resurrect to be? And what of God through all of Lent who resurrects in flesh, with us, “doubloons, icon-colored fins / troubling the water?”